TheatreWorks’ Wheelhouse takes the road to nowhere

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GrooveLily’s Gene Lewin (left), Brendan Milburn (center), and Valerie Vigoda risk the “Game of Life” in the world premiere of their musical Wheelhouse at TheatreWorks. Photos by Tracy Martin


The members of GrooveLily, vocalist/electric violinist Valerie Vigoda, keyboardist/vocalist Brendan Millburn and drummer/vocalist Gene Lewin seem like such nice people. They seemed nice in 2004 when their Striking 12 (a pop-rock re-telling of “The Little Matchgirl”) sparked with audiences at TheatreWorks, and they seem even nicer in their new concert cum autobiographical theatrical piece Wheelhouse, now having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks.

The fact that they seem so nice makes it hard to say that I found Wheelhouse uninteresting. Nice but bland. It’s like being forced to watch somebody’s home movies while they play songs they wrote to accompany them. There’s no edge and there’s no real drama, which makes the show’s 95 minutes all the more tedious.

Wheelhouse is an extended flashback as the band contemplates its make-it-or-break-it moment a few years ago. Having not achieved the earth-shattering success they had envisioned for themselves, the GrooveLily members give themselves a “Day of Reckoning” deadline when they will decided, once and for all, whether the band continues or goes away. During the better part of the year leading up to that deadline, Millburn and Vigoda, who are husband and wife, and Lewin criss-cross the country in a used RV playing gigs – sometimes for thousands, sometimes for three – and figuring out what they want to do with their lives.

All of this is told in more than a dozen cheerful songs (even the downcast songs seem somehow cheerful) set against three giant screens full of zippy projections (by Jason H. Thompson) that show old photographs, roadside landscapes and, most importantly, the countdown to the Day of Reckoning. For me, that day couldn’t come soon enough, so I was especially interested in seeing those numbers tick downward.

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There’s nothing remotely offensive about Wheelhouse, nor is it in any way unpleasant, save for its intelligent banality. This is smart music made by talented people, but it doesn’t feel inspired. Nor does it ever rise above a pleasant level to become anything authentically dramatic or gripping. They don’t traffic in cliche’s, nor do they every do anything that well and truly surprises. The best number is “Take on the World,” which begins and ends being accompanied by office items like phones, computer keyboards and staplers. “Open Roads” is also a memorable song because it has that hopeful, open-souled feeling of hitting the road full of idealism. The rest of the songs, though I made notes to myself to try and distinguish them, have evaporated from my brain.

And let’s talk about the lack of drama. The Day of Reckoning is supposed to provide tension, but come on. We’re watching the band perform. Right now. Live. We know how the story ends. By the time we get to the real home movies – photos of their adorable kids flashing by – we’re supposed to be in the “how brave of them to have chased their dreams so intently” phase. But I was in the “Gee, I hope they do something more interesting next time” phase.

Director Lisa Peterson tricks out the concert with a few theatrical flourishes – like the keyboard attached to the steering wheel as a representation of the RV and a fantasy game show sequence that attempts to add some fun to the show but seems out of synch. While GrooveLily may be a tight band, the members are not great actors (even though they’re playing themselves). Then again, they haven’t written themselves roles that require much exploration.

I wanted to like Wheelhouse and am disappointed I didn’t. I hope GrooveLily does something more fun or with more depth next time. But I have to say I was relieved when this musical road trip came to an end.



GrooveLily’s Wheelhouse continues through July 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

GrooveLily cancels `Sleeping Beauty’ fundraiser


The band GrooveLily (Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Gene Lewin, seen above in a photo by Leslie Lyons) has had to cancel its benefit concert for TheatreWorks that was scheduled for Friday, April 10.

The reason for the cancellation: family emergency. The group still plans to hold the event, a concert production of their theater work Sleeping Beauty Awakes, and a new date should be announced by the end of the month.

Best known to local audiences as the creators of Long Story Short and Striking 12, both seen at TheatreWorks, GrooveLily is a pop-rock group that has embraced theater in a big way.

Sleeping Beauty Wakes is a fractured fairy tale about a princess waking up after a centuries-long nap in a sleeping disorder clinic with nary a prince in sight.

Visit for information about the re-scheduled show.

GrooveLily’s Milburn, Vigoda tune up a new musical `Story’

Husband-and-wife team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda follow up the success of Striking 12 with a new two-person musical, Long Story Short, a TheatreWorks production now at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.


The last time we got into the GrooveLily groove was about four years ago when TheatreWorks produced the group’s terrific holiday show/concert, Striking 12, a modern-day retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Matchgirl.

GrooveLily’s Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda, who also happen to be husband and wife, are back at TheatreWorks with a new show, but they will not be onstage singing and playing the way they were in Striking 12.

For Long Story Short Milburn and Vigoda provide music, lyrics and book (based on a play by David Schulner) for a two-person musical about Charles and Hope, an unlikely couple – he’s a Jewish man from New York, she’s an Asian-American woman from Los Angeles – and their relationship through the decades.

The show is a co-production with City Theatre in Pittsburgh and comes to Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre after a successful run there.

One advantage of a co-production is two opening nights and some space in between to make some changes if necessary.

“We discovered things about the show you can only find out about in front of an audience,” Milburn says. “During previews in Pittsburgh, we saw several things we thought were hilarious get no reaction. And several things we thought were boring filler got guffawing, side-splitting laughter. Several songs we though were so-so got a huge reaction. We feel really blessed to be given the chance to do some re-writes between the close of the Pittsburgh run and the opening of the TheatreWorks run.”

During the run of Striking 12, Milburn and Vigoda forged a strong relationship with TheatreWorks and have been intimately involved with its new works program, where “Long Story Short” saw a fair amount of development.

“We were here a little under a year ago as part of the TheatreWorks writers’ retreat, and that was an incredibly fruitful time for us with new songs and new writing,” Vigoda explains. “That week alone I think we wrote and tossed a couple songs. It really helped us in the process of writing this.”

The actual writing of the show began in 2006 – after being commissioned by City Theatre — and by most new musical theater standards, the show was created incredibly quickly. Long Story Short also benefited from the development process in Pittsburgh, where the show was part of its Momentum Festival.

Milburn discovered Schulner’s play, An Infinite Ache, in a pile of scripts City Theatre had sent him with a goal of collaborating on a new musical with an established playwright. (The show stars Pearl Sun as Hope and Ben Evans as Charles, seen at right, photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons)

“As soon as I read the script, I knew this was the piece we could turn into a musical,” Milburn says. “What appealed to me first was the gimmick – the story actually has too much heart to call it a gimmick – but it’s the leaping forward in time without giving the audience any warning that a leap has happened, thus forcing the audience to keep up with the play. It’s a little confusing, but there’s always enough context to get what’s going on. You feel like you’re being taken for a very fast, very exciting roller coaster ride. It’s a little like science fiction without the science fiction – it’s a domestic time-travel story.”

Prior to writing this show, Vigoda and Milburn had been content writing for their band and performing. But lives change. The couple has a 3-year-old son, and Vigoda says the notion of creating a show and sending it out into the world without having to be in it has its appeal.

There are plenty of other irons in the creative fire for Milburn and Vigoda. They’ve written a musical version of the Disney-Pixar movie Toy Story for the Disney Cruise Line that is now being adapted to fill the stage of the Hyperion Theatre in Disney’s California Adventure, the sister park to Disneyland in Anaheim.

They’re also working on another musical for TheatreWorks: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. The show began life as a one-woman show for Vigoda (who sings and plays a mean electric violin), and it’s about one modern-day woman’s special night in the company of the great arctic explorer. If all goes well, there’ll be a reading of that new show next June.

As for the couple’s band, GrooveLily (which also features Gene Lewin on drums), they report they’re in the midst of recording the next album, which is based on a show they created for Deaf West Theatre: Sleeping Beauty Wakes, which was performed bilingually, in American Sign Language and spoken English.

They say to look for the album in early 2009.

Though Milburn and Vigoda won’t be on stage in Long Story Short, their fans can hear them perform the songs from the show on their Web site:

And they’ll perform the holiday show Striking 12 for one night only, Dec. 15, at the Little Fox in Redwood City. Visit for information.

Long Story Short previews Wednesday, Dec. 3-5, opens Saturday, Dec. 6 and continues through Dec. 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $27-$65. Call 650-903-6000 or visit